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God Shammgod Crossing Over to Coaching

After a 20-year playing career, God Shammgod is now coaching and passing on the life lessons he learned.

Alex Kennedy

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God Shammgod is most known for his memorable name and the flashy crossover that he created as a college freshman with the Providence Friars. After all, there aren’t many players who have an iconic move named after them. To this day, “the Shammgod” dribble is used in NBA games by point guards like Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving in an effort to fly past defenders (often in humiliating fashion).

However, there’s much more to the 39-year-old, whose professional playing career spanned 20 seasons. Now, Shammgod is making a name for himself with a different kind of move: The former point guard is crossing over to coaching, as he currently serves as a graduate assistant under Ed Cooley at Providence.

ShammgodInside3Shammgod works as a trainer for the Friars’ guards and has made a significant impact since returning to the program where he once starred. He played an instrumental role in the development of guards Bryce Cotton (who most recently played for the Utah Jazz) and Kris Dunn (who’s being projected as a top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft). In addition to training Providence’s players, he says he has also worked with NBA players like Isaiah Thomas, Ben Gordon and Ricky Ledo among others.

He first joined Cooley’s staff as an undergraduate assistant in 2012, but he is now a graduate assistant after recently receiving his degree. As he continues to gain experience on the sideline and help guards make huge strides, he’s being recognized as a coach with a lot of potential and the ability to help players better themselves on and off the court.

“During my last year in China, I was kind of a player-coach and I had trained their National Team’s guards for the Olympics so that gave me my first taste of training players and coaching,” Shammgod said. “I decided to forgo the final year of my contract in China to come back to the United States and finish my degree. When I got drafted, I promised my mother I would finish my degree. So I decided to do that and when I returned to Providence, everyone embraced me so much. I started helping MarShon Brooks and some other guys work out. It was a great fit and it took off from there. That’s when I realized I wanted to coach.”

*****

Players respect Shammgod, which has helped him as he transitions from playing to coaching. They know of his incredible handles, long playing career and legendary streetball status. They certainly know his unforgettable name. He Got Game director Spike Lee once told the New York Times that he came up with the name Jesus Shuttlesworth for Ray Allen’s character after he watched God Shammgod play, became a fan of his game and believed his “mythical name… heightens the legend.”

Players also listen to Shammgod because he has been in their shoes and has plenty of life experience to share. In 1995, he was a McDonald’s All-American alongside future NBA stars Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Chauncey Billups, Paul Pierce, Stephon Marbury, Antawn Jamison and Shareef Abdur-Rahim while developing a reputation as one of the best ball-handlers in the nation. After two years in college, Shammgod entered the 1997 NBA Draft and was selected by the Washington Bullets with the 45th overall pick.

Shammgod spent just one season in the NBA and often says that he was “20 years ahead of his time” because teams were turned off by his tendency to dominate the ball. While many of today’s guards are encouraged to take over games, Shammgod was urged to get the ball out of his hands despite the fact that his dribbling and creating were his biggest strengths. Shammgod says NBA decision-makers told him that the only way he’d have a future in the league is if he became a spot-up shooter and passed the ball to his team’s bigs.

GodShammgodInsideChina1After that lone NBA season, Shammgod continued his career overseas, where he was allowed to play his game and handle the ball much more. Over the next two decades, he had stints in China, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Croatia as well as American stops in the Continental Basketball Association, International Basketball League and United States Basketball League.

While he never achieved the mainstream NBA success of his peers, he had a nice career, influenced many players and developed a strong circle of friends from his playing days (which should also help him in his coaching career).

“He has that respect from the moment he meets a kid because he’s a streetball legend; everybody knows who God Shammgod is or, at the very least, you’ve heard of him,” Cleveland Cavaliers associate head coach Tyronn Lue said. “That alone means a lot, especially for the kids in New York who grew up hearing up about him and now get a chance to work with him. That means a lot for those kids. He definitely has a ton of respect from everyone, and that’s really important.

“He’s doing a great job as a coach and he always sends me the videos of his players working out, doing the ball-handling and shooting drills. He’s helping those guys. Also, he’s a great mentor because of the things he’s been through and the things he’s seen growing up, playing in the NBA, going overseas and being a streetball legend. He has so much to offer and give. I really love the mentor part. That’s big. He’s been there and guys respect that. They look up to him.”

NBA champion Chauncey Billups, who has been close with Shammgod since they trained together for the 1997 NBA Draft, agrees that his friend’s journey will help him in his post-playing career.

“He has the experience and that absolutely helps,” Billups said. “Coaches can say, ‘Do this, do that,’ but when you have a guy who has actually been through it like Shammgod, that’s so valuable. He’s not telling guys about things he’s learned from other coaches or things he’s heard. He’s telling them what he’s been through. He can tell you what to do and what not to do. I’m pretty sure if Shamm could do it all over again, there would be some different decisions made that probably would’ve propelled him to a 10-to-15-year NBA career, so being able to own that and then being courageous enough to pass those lessons on to kids is great. He can tell guys, ‘This is what I did, this is what I should’ve done and you shouldn’t make these mistakes.’ He has a chance to do something special and that message resonates a lot stronger with these kids than anything a coach who hasn’t been through it can tell you.

“I think he has done a phenomenal job. He has a wealth of knowledge that these kids need. These kids want to be pros, they want to be in the NBA, and Shammgod has been through a lot and seen a lot. His lessons are great for these young fellas. And, look, a lot of people can’t go through all of that and then turn around and teach. Shamm has done an incredible job of teaching these guys about what he’s been through and helping guys not go through a bump [in the road] like he did. And these guys have really grown to trust him and really respect him. He’s a huge asset to these guys.”

*****

Shammgod has always enjoyed helping other players improve their ball-handling. It’s something he has done since he was a child. In fact, he says his first training sessions technically took place when he was in high school at the famed ABCD Camp. Each day, there was a young guard who would wake up early to work out with Shammgod and try to learn his moves. The high school junior was determined to master the crossovers and add them to his arsenal.

The kid was Kobe Bryant.

GodKobeInside1“The first person I ever trained in my life was Kobe Bryant,” Shammgod said with a laugh. “I was going into the 12th grade and he was in the 11th grade and we were at the ABCD Camp. We would get up early every day at the camp and I’d show him some dribbling moves and things like that. I’ve always liked to help other players and show them some things. That’s always been in me since day one, and I’ve kind of been training people my whole life without really knowing it.”

Bryant isn’t the only player who Shammgod impacted. Two years ago, Shammgod had the opportunity to meet Chris Paul. Shammgod said that the Los Angeles Clippers point guard credited Shammgod and Tim Hardaway with influencing his ball-handling (which explains why “the Shammgod” is a part of Paul’s repertoire).

Because he never lit up the NBA, it’s easy to forget just how talented Shammgod was during his playing days. But talk to basketball lifers and just about everyone has a Shammgod story.

“This is a story that most people wouldn’t tell, but I’ll tell it,” Lue said with a laugh. “Me and Shammgod met when we were entering our senior year of high school and we were playing AAU basketball. He was playing for Brooklyn USA and I was playing for Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. We played a game at the University of Purdue. Now, I had heard his name and heard some things about him, but in the Midwest you don’t see a lot of guys who can handle the ball and do what he could do. The first time we played against each other, he had 40 points on me. Like, he killed me. Some of the tricks he was doing with the ball, being in the Midwest, we had never seen anything like that before. It was just like, ‘What?!’

“Our team liked to full-court press a lot. Well, he caught the ball against the press and just dribbled through his legs down the length of the court, beating the press and making it look so easy. Everyone on our team just turned to each other like, ‘What the hell?’ It was kind of crazy. Then, at the end of a quarter when guys will usually just hold the ball and wait for the last shot, Shammgod came just barely across half-court and stood right next to the sideline, rocking the ball back and forth. I mean, if he had mishandled the ball by one inch it’s either out of bounds or a backcourt violation. But he’s just rocking the ball back and forth for 10 seconds, staring the defense down and doing whatever he wants. That was my first time meeting Shammgod and playing against him, and I’ll always remember that because it was just crazy seeing a guy who could handle the ball the way he did and do the things he did. We stayed in touch from that point on.”

*****

Today, Shammgod is influencing the next generation of basketball talent. As a trainer, Shammgod tries to help his young players on and off the court. While he obviously wants to improve their ball-handling and point guard skills, he also wants to be a mentor to them and ensure that his pupils learn from his experiences and mistakes as a pro. That ability to help players with every aspect of their development separates Shammgod from some other trainers.

His work with former Providence guard Bryce Cotton helped the point guard get on the NBA’s radar, and he most recently played for the Utah Jazz.

“We both went to the same school and when he came back [to Providence], I was going into my junior year and we just hit it off right away,” Cotton said. “We worked out every single day and I loved the improvements that I saw, so I’ve been working with him ever since. He helped my mindset and he helped me become a much better point guard. He has so many different tricks that he used to use back in the day and since we’re around the same size, he passed those on to me and they were really helpful. I think the sky is the limit for him; he’s a tremendous trainer. Every single person who has worked out with him at Providence has seen enormous growth in their game.”

KrisDunnInsideNow, Shammgod is working with Kris Dunn, who is projected to be one of the top prospects in the 2016 NBA Draft. DraftExpress currently has him being selected as the seventh overall pick. Dunn worked out with Shammgod every day during the summer and raves about the experience.

“I first met him during my freshman year at Providence; he knew I was a McDonald’s All-American and I knew he was a McDonald’s All-American so right away there was a connection,” Dunn said. “I’ve always known who God Shammgod is because of the move that he created and because he’s just such an amazing dribbler. The fact that he showed me love right away made me feel special.

“He has helped me a lot. In the summer, that’s my guy. I’ve been going to him every summer and I’ve been getting better every year because of him, so I just try to stay with him and work with him as much as possible. The biggest lessons from him are just about being yourself and knowing who you are. We’ve done a lot of drills to improve my ball-handling, read a ball screen, perfect my decision-making and things like that. I’m always picking his brain and asking him how to get better because he’s so knowledgeable when it comes to the game. But what a lot of people don’t know is the off-court stuff. He’s been a mentor to me on the court, but really I view him as a big brother who has also been there for me off the court. We’re always discussing things that have nothing to do with basketball and he has taught me a lot about life in general. There’s just so much that he has done for me and I appreciate all of it. He’s one of the first guys who I go to if I’m having a bad day or a bad game because he’s been there, knows what it’s like and how to bounce back. He has so much life experience that he can share.”

On the court, Shammgod will preach that his guys need to do things like “keep the ball low, dribble quick and be creative.” But, as Dunn said, Shammgod also wants to help players off the court and form long-lasting bonds.

“My advice is to never take anything for granted, always work hard and try to do things the right way,” Shammgod said. “We have our plan and God has his plan, and I try to tell guys not to rush God’s plan. When I was at Providence, I feel like I rushed my plan along. I thought I was set up to do great things and I thought leaving [for the NBA] after my sophomore year was part of God’s plan, but I rushed it. So I always tell guys to be patient and that there’s no substitute for hard work. No matter how many business opportunities that guys like LeBron or Kobe or whoever has, none of those happen without basketball, so you need to give basketball 110 percent, focus on the present and work as hard as you can every single day.

“I also try to talk to guys about life – things like taking care of their family and seeing the big picture. It’s much more than a trainer-player relationship. Kris and Bryce are like my little brothers; that’s how I view them. I don’t necessarily consider myself a trainer. I’m just a person [in your life] who is focused on making you better. Period. I want to work on improving their skill development, but I also want to work on improving their mind. You want to have an impact on people for the rest of their life, not just in that moment you’re training them. You want to make a long-term impact. I think that’s the sign of a great coach – when you can have much more than a coach-player relationship and be the coach who is invited to the player’s wedding years later when they’re in the NBA and things like that. You build that real, life-long relationship.”

Shammgod is proud of his young prospects and their recent success.

“We worked hard all summer, so it’s been great to see all of that work pay off for Bryce and Kris,” Shammgod said. “I’m just honored that I’m still relevant enough for them to want to listen to me. These are elite athletes. And the way I look at it, they’re helping me grow just as much as I’m helping them. I just feel blessed that everything is coming together for them like we talked about and that they’re having success. That’s the ultimate reward for me, seeing those guys have success.”

*****

What’s the long-term plan for Shammgod? He says he doesn’t consider himself a trainer and he’s currently a graduate assistant for Providence. Where does he hope to be several years from now?

“Eventually, I want to be a coach,” Shammgod said. “I think Coach Cooley is doing a wonderful job preparing me to be a coach in the long term. Coach [Andre] LaFleur, Coach [Brian] Blaney, Coach [Jeff] Battle and Coach [Kevin] Kurbec have helped me and I pick their brains so that I can try to learn something from each other and one day be a great coach like they are. Right now, they’re my inspiration. They do it the right way, especially Coach Cooley. I just feel honored to even be part of the staff. If I was 18 years old and I could do it all over again, I would play for Coach Cooley in a heartbeat. I would love for my coaching journey – if God blesses me – to follow the same path that Coach Cooley has taken.”

His peers and pupils believe he’d make a great NCAA or NBA head coach someday.

“I think he’d be successful,” Billups said. “Knowing him, he’s a strong-willed person and when he puts his mind to something, he will attain it eventually. If that’s what he wants to do, he’d be great at it. He’s going to put the time in and work hard. He’s not someone who thinks, ‘Okay, I’m Shammgod and have done this and that so I’ll be successful.’ No, he’s going to learn, he’s going to work and he’s going to put the time in. He’s doing that right now, sitting behind these coaches, respecting them and learning from them. He’s someone who is always going to be put in the necessary time to be successful at his craft.”

“Can he be a head coach? Why not?” Lue said. “He’s already making an impact with these kids and, honestly, I think that’s harder to do than it is on the NBA level. When you’re dealing with kids, you’re dealing with AAU coaches and parents and all of that. At least on the NBA level, it’s just all basketball. I see him being someone who comes in and does player development first, getting his feet wet that way, and then working his way up. But I don’t see why he couldn’t become a head coach someday. Why not?”

“I think he’d be great,” Dunn said. “His brand alone would really help him. I mean, he’s God Shammgod! Everybody knows him – from the pros, to the college players, to the high schoolers, to the kids. His brand and name alone will automatically help him. But it’s not just that – he has what it takes on and off the court to really succeed in that role. He’s so knowledgeable, he’s a teacher and he has a great basketball IQ. And off the court, he can get along with anybody because of his personality. If you don’t like God Shammgod, well, to be honest, you aren’t a good person (laughs). I say that because he’s a great individual. He’s always worried about other people rather than focusing on himself and he’s so considerate. Also, I think he’d do an excellent job recruiting, especially guys in New York since he came from there and he’s still known as the best ball-handler from there. He can teach anyone how to dribble and read screens and all of that. I definitely think he could be a great head coach.”

“There’s no question that he’ll be a college or NBA coach at some point,” Cotton said. “He has a great knowledge of the game, and he has such a creative mind when it comes to creating workouts and helping players get better. Anybody would be lucky to have him as their coach.”

With a coaching career seemingly in his future, the legend of God Shammgod continues.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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